It's the 25th anniversary of Secret of Mana, an SNES action-RPG that's still important to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Secret of Mana marked my return to RPGs after several years of dormancy (the original Final Fantasy left sour taste in my mouth, but that's my fault for going into Squaresoft's primitive adventure directly after playing Dragon Quest III), which is one reason the game's special to me. I kind of dig RPGs now, and Secret of Mana is a big reason why.
Secret of Mana isn't a perfect game—though its soundtrack touches perfection outside the maddening Dwarf Town music—but I enjoy myself whenever I sate my annual itch to play through it again. Its simple sword-swinging mechanics are easy to appreciate in this age of complex 100-hour RPGs, but Secret of Mana's subversion of RPG stereotypes from the '80s and '90s are also interesting to look back on. Most notably, finishing the game nets you a melancholy ending instead of a happy wrap-up more suited for the fairy-tale themes most RPGs subscribed to during the era.
(Yeah, it's been 25 years, but why risk it. Ending spoilers for Secret of Mana follow!)
While I wouldn't necessarily call Secret of Mana a dark game, it undeniably has sombre moments and story scenarios that pair up well with Debbie Downer's iconic "womp-waaaaah!". The festivities kick off when Randi falls down a waterfall and is ordered by a ghost to pull a sword lodged in a stone. Randi does as the dead person orders, but he's not declared a King or a hero for his efforts. Instead, he's banished from his humble village for dislodging its charm against monster attacks. But it's not like anyone in the hamlet is very attached to him, anyway. That's the lot of an orphan.
In time, Randi makes friends with Primm, a young woman who blew off an arranged marriage to search for her missing boyfriend, Dyluck. An amnesiac little sprite named Popoi also joins the party early on, and their tricks and antics offer some comic relief that cut through Secret of Mana's serious moments—at first.
See, as you get deeper into Secret of Mana, you notice happiness continually eludes its young heroes. Despite Primm's best efforts to find Dyluck, she's always a step behind him: The unlucky soldier is constantly shunted from bad guy to bad guy because he harbors a sealed-off dark power that's caught the attention of Secret of Mana's evil regime. When Dyluck does get a chance to see Primm again, it's for a scant few moments before he offs himself to prevent his body from being used as a vessel for a demon. Randi's quest to power-up the Mana Sword and find his missing mother concludes with his mother sacrificing her life force to restore said Sword. And Popoi regains their memory and returns to the hidden village they were washed away from, only to discover it's been razed by the Empire, its inhabitants slaughtered.
There's a popular "Demotivational Poster" that accurately sums up Secret of Mana's story: "Sometimes the journey of a thousand steps can end very, very badly." You can argue heroes have to make sacrifices to bring peace to the world, and Mana's heroes aren't any different. That's true, but Mana's conclusion has one more gut-punch in store for its players. Seconds before you're tasked with facing off against the rampaging Mana Beast that threatens to end all life on earth, Popoi reveals they won't survive the battle because if the Beast dies, all things related to Mana will disappear with it. That includes Sprites, a race tied closely to the planet's Mana life force.
True to their word, Popoi dies. While the game's post-credits sequence suggests Popoi might be a ghost or a spirit who will cling to the ruins of their home village, the implications are clear: They'll never see their friends again.
But then, nobody gets a storybook ending when Secret of Mana wraps up. Randi's mother doesn't magically return. The burnt-out Mana Tree doesn't magically regrow. Dyluck doesn't pop back into existence with a befuddled "Gosh! What happened?" While there are smaller emotional rewards—Primm patching things up with her estranged father, for example, and Randi returning to his jerk hometown—the dead still sleep.
Secret of Mana taught me games don't owe me a happy ending. Thinking back, that wasn't a bad lesson to learn before heading into the myriad "OOF" story moments delivered by Final Fantasy VI. Final Fantasy VI is a game about death and ruin, though. Secret of Mana is a lush, candy-colored adventure about a boy and his friends enjoying a journey together, and the game's cheery backdrop makes the heroes' heartbreak all the more poignant.
We've got dead parents, dead boyfriends, and a downer ending all piled on a bedrock of satisfying fights and epic music. No wonder Secret of Mana's still worth talking about 25 years later. I'll happily talk about it again 25 years from now, too. I have thoughts about every pixel of this odd action-RPG.